Speaker in waiting? Rapid rise of Hakeem Jeffries fuels talk
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is a study in contrasts.
The unflappable head of the House Democratic Caucus has emerged as a fiercely disciplined party spin doctor, proficient in promoting the Democrats’ ambitious agenda and attacking President Trump in cataclysmic terms, often in the same breath.
To get him off message would amount to a coup.
Yet the four-term lawmaker has climbed quickly through the ranks in part by taking strategic political risks that bucked the party establishment even as he was rising through it. Jeffries challenged an incumbent in his first run for Congress; endorsed a long-shot presidential candidate over his home-state senator in the 2008 primary and defeated a popular veteran Democrat to win the caucus chairmanship last year.
His rapid ascension has sparked talk that Jeffries, 48, is in line to succeed Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) whenever she chooses to bow out. If he reaches that pinnacle, Jeffries would make history as the nation’s first African-American Speaker.
“Hakeem’s ceiling is unlimited,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who serves with Jeffries in leadership. “He has terrific interpersonal skills; he is good in the media … [and] he doesn’t tend to make mistakes.”
Jeffries is mum about his future plans, saying he’s looking no further than his task as party chairman heading into the crucial 2020 elections.
“Haven’t given that any thought, because the only responsible thing to do is to focus on the job that you’re privileged to have,” he said during an hourlong interview in his office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill.
An unruly caucus
Jeffries is helping to lead a caucus shaped by an insurgent liberal base determined to protest Trump, as well as centrist freshmen who flipped GOP seats in red-leaning districts.
In the new Congress, those factions have clashed over issues as diverse as climate change, health care policy and anti-Semitism, laying bare the party divisions and creating headaches for leadership. Jeffries said he saw those battles coming.
“One of the reasons why I ran for this position is because I knew that in order for House Democrats to be successful in the majority, we had to message with discipline, legislate with precision and proceed with operational unity,” he said.
The push for unity has emerged as another minefield for Democrats this year, after the party’s campaign arm, led by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), codified new rules barring official party vendors from working on behalf of primary candidates challenging sitting incumbents. It’s a move that has infuriated a number of liberal lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose shocking primary victory over Joseph Crowley last year opened up the caucus chairmanship that Jeffries now occupies.
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory angered a number of Crowley allies, but Jeffries said she’s been “welcomed with open arms.”
“Once you arrive, you are a member of Congress, and you are a part of the team,” he said.
No sure bet
Jeffries’s path to the No. 5 leadership job was not without some controversy, and some say he’s no shoo-in to take the party reins.
While Pelosi has imposed a cap on her own leadership reign, her two lieutenants, Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.), have declined to follow suit.
Jeffries, a former corporate lawyer, ruffled plenty of feathers in the left-leaning caucus in defeating Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a liberal institution and feminist trailblazer, for the party chairmanship in 2018 — a razor-close contest that led to charges from Lee and some of her closest allies that ageism and sexism were at play.
“I think there are lots of future Speakers of the House,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who was seen consoling Lee, a fellow Bay Area Democrat, after her defeat by Jeffries last fall. “Hakeem certainly has talent, and a lot of others have talent.”
Both sides say they’ve moved on, but there are whispers of lingering resentment. Speier said Jeffries never reached out to her after the contentious race, and she lamented the “duplicitous” members who vowed support to Lee they didn’t give. The idea that gender and generation bias governed the race clearly crawled under Jeffries’s skin, as well.
“There’s no reason to believe that fellow members of the House Democratic Caucus would make decisions anchored in sexism or ageism,” he said.
Political success did not come immediately for Jeffries.
He lost his first two races for the statehouse. A third run, though, took him to Albany, and as a freshman assemblyman in 2007 he did the unthinkable, endorsing a backbenching senator, Barack Obama, at a time when most Democrats, especially those in New York, were rallying behind Hillary Clinton.
Jeffries challenged incumbent Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) in a primary in 2012 to represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens. (Towns subsequently announced his retirement, precluding that face-off.)
These days, however, Jeffries has adopted the role of team player, backing the new rules to protect incumbents.
It was rare to hear politics discussed around the dinner table when Jeffries was growing up in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. But the 1010 WINS news radio station was on every morning when he sat down for breakfast.
And evidence of social and racial inequality were all around him. Jeffries’s mother was a caseworker for the city; his father was a substance abuse counselor for the state. Crown Heights in the 1970s and ’80s was plagued by poverty, a drug epidemic and gun violence.
But Jeffries’s political awakening didn’t occur until many years later, in April 1992, when he was a student at Binghamton University. Jeffries returned home one night, flipped on the TV and saw Los Angeles in flames — riots sparked by the acquittal of white police officers who had been caught on video severely beating a black motorist, Rodney King.
“That moment, with the acquittal of those four officers in the face of clear videotape evidence, crystallized for me once again that there were social, racial and economic injustices that remain stubbornly part of our system,” Jeffries said. “And I hope one day to be a part of addressing those things.”
Jeffries is already having an impact. He scored an enormous legislative victory last year when a sweeping criminal justice reform proposal he’d championed was signed into law — a rare bipartisan triumph that hinged on the buy-in of an unusually diverse group of proponents, including Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
Jeffries characterized Kushner as “a straight shooter” on the topic and voiced some optimism that similar cooperation is possible this Congress on other big-ticket issues, like drug pricing and infrastructure.
“Those areas are not nearly as controversial as criminal justice reform,” he said. “And the elements to come together certainly exist.”